Strangers…they are indeed strange

When a stranger approaches you, how would you react? With doubt or with trust? It was the new year’s day, 2006, about twenty minutes past midnight. I was at my cousins place when we decided celebrate with a visit to café coffee day. Bangalore too was quite dismal when the clock stroked twelve on 31st December with only a handful of shops open during the hour. But, the cheerful crowds on the streets kept our spirits high. As I was driving on the infamous Bannerughatta Road (for being the worst road in the country on NDTV polls), I had roll down the windows to shake hands with the enthusiastic crowd having a great time on the streets. It was then that my cousin warned me not to roll down the shutters. He reasoned that chain-snatchers and pick-pockets are active during the festive time. I argued that most of people are out here to have some fun. “Why not join them?” Some three to four minutes into the conversation I pointed out that anyone’s reaction to a stranger is simply trust or suspension. If it’s former, both are likely to benefit, while if it’s later, any mutual benefit is highly unlikely.

I then narrated this incident which happened to me in Coimbatore a month earlier. From young age most of us ‘taught’ that by definition, from our ‘learnt’ elders, that auto and taxi drivers are here to extract all your money. Being in Chennai most of the time, I wasn’t new to bargaining with auto drivers who are notorious for charging to the extent of 200% of the actual fare. We (my friend and I) decided to take a taxi to reach Amrita University, which is some 25 km from the city railway station. Before we could place the luggage in the trunk, the driver, a very old man, changed from neutral to first gear without using the clutch. I smiled to myself sensing a rough ride. The drive turned out a lot finer than I anticipated. Through the bumpy roads, the driver was slow enough to get us there in one piece.

On the way, I asked him about some nearby tourist destinations (which I, sadly, couldn’t visit). It was clear in an instant that the driver just loved speaking. I did not know Tamil, so my friend had to translate the parts that I couldn’t understand. On the way we stopped at a petrol bunk, where I paid 100 rupees for the diesel. He told us about a waterfall and a dam near the university on Kerala – Tamil Nadu border which was five kilometers away. Coimbatore, I found out, was right next to the Western Ghats. As we drove nearer to the destination, the serene atmosphere, nostalgically reminded me of Kudremukh (some pics here) which was in the heart of Western Ghats. The picturesque view of the hills around resembled closely to those in Kudremukh. I distinctly remember a hill that stood like a conical pyramid. The blend of the fresh green grass and the dry yellow grass added to its appeal. Just as I was beginning to get a sense of the place around, the taxi had to stop for railway crossing for about half an hour. It was then that I got the glimpse of the clouds engulfing the hill tops as I was getting out of the taxi. The view was indeed breath-taking. Away from the heat of Chennai, the place was pleasing to anyone. The tracks on the foothills, hill themselves very imposing and cloud on the hill tops looked straight out of a painting.

The two trains came and went. After this, we completed the formality of signing registers etc. to stay for couple of days in the university. The taxi bill came to Rs 250 which I promptly paid. It came to me as a surprise when the driver returned Rs 100 back reminding me of the payment in the petrol bunk. All I could think was why are people so presumptuous when comes to judging the taxi (or auto) drivers on their honesty. By nature, I trust people; this gesture gave me all the more reasons to do so.

Unimpressed by the incident, my cousin continued to defend his side while I did the same on my side.

Yesterday, I was going through some of the short stories of Ruskin Bond which are set on rural India. The mundane background which every Indian can connect to, in his stories, takes you into times and minds of the characters. His stories revolve around serendipitous encounters which leave a lasting impression. The taxi driver and his honesty will be cherished for a long time. The stories narrate about a chanced meeting with a stranger, finding something that fascinates him about the stranger, and in many cases the stranger is lost in the wilderness of the crowd. Anything could fascinate the narrator, from a coy smile of a little girl to benevolence of a thief. Reading the fiction, I sensed a déjà vu. I was reminded this little encounter in Bangalore about four to five years back.

It was the beginning of my 11th standard, fresh out of 10th standard board examination, and also fresh into preparation for IIT-JEE. A ninety minute eventless ‘journey’ was part of my daily routine to travel from my coaching institute in South Bangalore to my uncle’s place in the North. Leaning against the window, if I was lucky enough to get a window seat, staring into the city of blinding lights (forgive me, I’m a big U2 fan) and watching the bus conductor battle through the impatient crowd was the only adventure I could be a part of.

There was this small stretch of about 2 km, which I usually had to travel by ‘local’ auto for just three bucks. It was about ten in the evening and I was running a little late. Mechanically, I got down from the bus and headed to the ‘local’ auto stand. In a bid to save the precious one buck, I was inquiring the auto driver about the fare.

Just then, I heard a voice coming from inside the auto, “forget about three rupees or four rupees, come inside, I will pay.” Confounded, I said, “huh?”
“get into the auto…”, he sounded very friendly
“but three….”
Before I could complete, he said, “I told you I will pay.”

Seeing no danger, with couple of more people in the auto, and a busy street, I got in. The twenty something man sounded very excited and in high sprits. On the way I learnt that he was doing research on Tuberculosis in a research lab nearby. I have absolutely no idea what makes anyone so upbeat. He was more cheerful than I can ever be. He asked me my name, still confused, I replied, “Shankar”. “Ok Shankar, I’m _____(I don’t remember). So, what are you doing here?” I gave a brief intro. His excitement overpowered the noisy auto probably running on kerosene. I told him my stop will arrive in couple of minutes and have to get off. He said, “Ah…its ok just gimme your phone no. I will call you sometime.” He hurriedly took out a dairy and wrote my number down. He looked like a professional.

Then, the auto stopped at the petrol bunk where I was supposed to get off. I was paying three bucks as the stranger ‘more than just’ insisted the he will pay the driver. I couldn’t utter a word clearly. The auto driver asked me (in Kannada), “aur kodtara?” (Is he paying). I said, “yaako gothilla” (I don’t know why). He shouted from inside, “get home safely, I will take care.” Others in the auto were smiling, I will never know if they were smiling at me or at him. I said, “Fine” and crossed the street towards my uncle’s place. Blissful that I saved three bucks, began wondering who that person was……and I am still wondering…